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Thursday, May 26, 2011

KILL THE IRISHMAN -- DVD review by porfle

It's not every day you get a mob movie as raw and violent as one of Martin Scorcese's gangster epics, but the fact-based KILL THE IRISHMAN (2010) will do until the next one of those comes along.  It's like GOODFELLAS Lite, but with its own vigorous, roughhouse charm. 

The first half of the story recounts burly Irish dock worker Danny Greene's "come-up", beginning with his brash, decisive handling of a sadistic Union boss (SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION'S Bob Gunton), whose position he usurps until corruption lands him in hot water with the Feds.  Danny goes free after agreeing to become an informant, then he and his gang of hardy Irish chums go into business as enforcers for a Jewish loan shark named Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken as his usual creepy-cool self) who has Mafia connections.

A meeting with current mob boss Jack Licavoli (gang-movie legend Tony Lo Bianco) lands him an even more lucrative deal that begins his ill-fated association with the Italians.  Eventually, he rebels against the greedy, controlling mobsters while also clashing with Birns over money, leading to a feud with none other than "Fat Tony" Salerno (an inevitable Paul Sorvino) of New York's Gambino family.  They put out a $25,000 contract on him and for the rest of the film Danny is forced to evade bullets and car bombs at every turn.

Unlike the typical cutthroat Mafia hood embodied by the likes of Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro, Danny Greene comes off as a guy you could hang out with and not worry about getting whacked for looking at him wrong.  He's admirable (relatively speaking, anyway) because he goes after what he wants and doesn't back down to anybody while remaining loyal to his friends and gaining their undying loyalty in return.

I have to hand it to someone who can tell self-important Mafia kingpins to stuff it to their astonished faces.  In fact, it's pretty exhilarating to watch this two-fisted Irish galoot bustle his way through life and fearlessly take on anyone who wants to "dance", including a Union big shot's hulking bodyguard and a scary Hell's Angel whose rowdy gang is disrupting Danny's backyard barbecue (he thrashes them both within an inch of their lives). 

Director and co-scripter Jonathan Hensleigh has a lean, straightforward storytelling style unhampered by a lot of visual fluff.  He has assembled a hell of a cast here, with Ray Stevenson taking on the role of Danny as though born to it.  In addition to Walken, Lo Bianco, and Sorvino, Val Kilmer plays a Cleveland detective who has a love-hate relationship with Danny and Vinnie Jones appears as one of Danny's tough Irish cohorts.  Familiar faces such as Mike Starr (ED WOOD) and THE SOPRANOS' Steve Schirripa are on hand as well.

The female side of the cast is strong, with Linda Cardellini as Danny's long-suffering wife Joan, Laura Ramsey as his hot young girlfriend Ellie, and the venerable Fionnula Flanagan as a tough old Irishwoman who embodies Danny's Celtic roots and helps bring out his more human side.  Robert Davi (LICENSE TO KILL) plays the cold-blooded hitman hired to kill the Irishman once and for all.  FULL METAL JACKET's Vincent D'Onofrio is great as John Nardi, an Italian mob boss who partners with Danny after being screwed over by the Mafia.

While KILL THE IRISHMAN doesn't revel in violence, things get rough at times and some of the killings are pretty graphic.  The serial bombings that plagued Cleveland in the 70s are excitingly portrayed here--guys on both sides took their lives in their hands every time they started their cars as, in the words of a real-life news report, "the heirarchy of organized crime in Cleveland continues to violently realign."  The attempts on Danny's life keep things hopping in the second half, especially when a bundle of lit dynamite crashes through the window of his house while he's on the phone, building suspense until the film's inevitable conclusion. 

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  In addition to a trailer, the disc features an hour-long documentary, "Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman", which I found fascinating after viewing the fictionalized account.  Some of the images are quite graphic--car bombings tend to make for messy autopsy photographs.

More than just a succession of violent and depraved setpieces, KILL THE IRISHMAN is involving because its lead character is such a dynamic and complicated figure with enough humanity to make him sympathetic.  Danny Greene must've been a real force of nature, something that this solid film version of his life makes the most of.

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